The Barefoot Queen is an epic tale of gypsy lore, smuggling, slavery and music set against the chaotic Spanish streets of 18th century Seville and Madrid, and richly coloured by both the outrageous antics of the Spanish nobility, and the nefarious priests who control the illegal tobacco trade. It is also a story about family loyalty, injustice and betrayal – the anguish that is borne from years of persecution, which forms the cornerstone to the book’s professed tale – the birth of Flamenco.
It is 1748 and Caridad, a Cuban freed slave, has just arrived by boat at the quay in the Triana district of Seville. She is free, but she has never known anything but slavery; she doesn’t know how to do anything but roll tobacco and take orders. Her unthinking obedience and inability to take care of herself mean she is often taken advantage of; one form of slavery merely exchanged for another.
By chance she draws the attention of an old man, Melchor, head of the Vega family of gypsies. He is transported by Caridad’s mournful singing back to his own stretch of enslavement, shackled in the galleys of sea-going ships. He takes pity on her, and leads her back to the gypsy camp, where she is befriended by Melchor’s beautiful and desirable granddaughter Milagros. The two could not be more different, one quiet and submissive, the other bold and defiant, but they find a tender friendship and sisterhood in one another, and learn to weave the songs and dance of their people into something new and exotic.
Yet things are about to change, and when the army are ordered to surround and arrest all gypsies in every city across Spain, all their families are rent apart; men, women and children sent to separate prisons across the country. Though Milagros and Caridad escape arrest, without Melchor or her mother Ana Vega to guide and protect they naively become enslaved – forced to perform their unique form of singing and dancing for money. As the years pass a cruel web of deceit and injustice is spun around the Vega family, turning them against each other and tearing their spirit to breaking point. Many miles will be travelled and years will pass before they can be united again, but are the mistakes of the past just too deep to mend?
The Barefoot Queen is meticulously researched, and while the story is pure fiction, the story brings to life the true events of 18th century Spain. It is believed that Flamenco is born from a fusion of Moorish, Spanish and Negro music, and while the style and intensity of modern Flamenco may not be obviously portrayed in these pages, scholars are agreed that the time of the gypsy round-up bore witness to the start of pre-flamenco music.
This is Ildefonso Falcones’ third novel – each one a historical epic depicted against a tumultuous part of Spanish history and with strong themes of identity, adventure, treachery and transcending inequality. Falcones’ first novel Cathedral of the Sea won many literary awards after it was published in 2006, including best novel in Spanish, best Spanish book, most sold novel of the year, and best foreign author. His second novel The Hand of Fatima was published in 2009, and after seven million copies of his novels have been sold he is now considered one of Spain’s most popular authors. Falcones lives in Barcelona with his wife and four children and works as a lawyer and writer.
The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones
Black Swan pbk Jun 2015 978-0857522269
SECOND OPINION: Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith